Gladiator (2000) -- Are You Not Entertained?!

(This is my contribution to The Sword & Sandal Blogathon, hosted by Moon in Gemini.)

When director Ridley Scott made Gladiator in 2000, it was a huge gamble.  Hollywood thought the historical epic was dead. The genre (costume dramas set in ancient or mythic times) had its heyday in the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s with blockbusters like Spartacus and The Ten Commandments, and then the "peplum" or "pepla" Italian films (Hercules, Samson, etc.) The cast-of-thousands, the exotic locales of yore, and the death-defying hand-to-hand combat of steel-on-shield all became cliches of the form. The fantasy subgenre included the still-impressive masterwork of Ray Harryhausen and cheesy, lower-budget efforts galore. While cinema fans cherished the classics of Cecil B. DeMille and others, the film genre seemed to be more often spoofed than revered.  Gladiator proved to be a success, and with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy that followed in 2001, 2002, and 2003, it gave new life to those toga-wearing, broadsword-wielding heroes of the style.

Gladiator was a box-office and critical hit, winning a number of Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  My youngest sister, who tends to fall asleep during most movies I see with her, was riveted by the spectacle on screen, brought to tears by the plot of a Roman general named Maximus, who just wants to return to his home in Spain, but is made a slave and forced to battle for his life in the gladiatorial arena when the emperor is assassinated and his family is slaughtered.

According to ScreenCrush, Antonio Banderas and Hugh Jackman were considered for the lead role of Maximus, and Mel Gibson was offered it, but turned it down. The part eventually went to Russell Crowe, whose performance earned him the Oscar for Best Actor.

Crowe wasn't the only bit of solid casting. Joaquin Phoenix delivered a star turn as the villainous Commodus, murdering his father Marcus Aurelius (played by the terrific Richard Harris) after learning that he would be denied the title of Caesar. If ever a character made me want to hiss at the screen, it was him! It was a delightful portrayal of a villain we loved to hate, making his comeuppance at the end all the more satisfying.

Other familiar faces included Derek Jacobi as Senator Gracchus (one of the great actors from that TV sword and sandals classic I, Claudius) and Oliver Reed as the gladiator trainer Proximo (the actor's final screen appearance; he died during filming). Connie Nielsen was memorable as Lucilla, recently widowed, the oldest child of Marcus Aurelius, doing her best to ward off her brother's advances and protect her young son Lucius. Djimon Hounsou was excellent as the gladiator Juba, who has one of the film's many fantastic lines: "And now we are free. I will see you again...but not yet...not yet."

The performances, the direction, the music by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, the cinematography by John Mathieson, and especially the screenplay by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson all combine to create a fine motion picture experience. Like the "bread-and-circuses" of Roman antiquity, cinema provides a diversion for the masses. Unlike those brutal gladiatorial games, what we see on the screen is just make believe. The fictional tales stir our senses and evoke emotional responses, much like the life-and-death matches in the Flavian Amphitheater did for the citizens of Rome, but without the real bloodshed. Maybe that's why this genre continues to be revived every generation -- its tropes manage to strike a nerve with viewers over and over again.

As Maximus asked the crowd after surviving one of his harrowing battles, we can ask ourselves as we watch these sword and sandals epics, mesmerized by the spectacle, are we not entertained? The answer, for me at least as I watch Gladiator for the umpteenth time, is a resounding "Yes!"


Jeff McGinley said…
Great trip back to one of my favorites. To make a Star Wars comparison (because I can't help myself) I think the use of Jacobi, Reed and Harris gave the film an old school quality acting anchor similar to using Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in the original Star Wars, only to a much larger degree.
Debra Vega said…
I had zero expectations going to this movie the first time I saw it. I had read some reviews that made it sound kind of meh so I didn't see it in the movie theater. Instead, I rented it and watched it with my sister.

We looked at each other when it was over and were like, "Why did people say this movie isn't good?"

Yeah, I think it harked back to an old-fashioned style of filmmaking (while also updating it somewhat) and it did it really well.

Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon, Nick!
Nick Leshi said…
Totally agree, Jeff. The casting was superb.
Nick Leshi said…
Thanks, Deb. It was my favorite movie of the year and I think totally deserved the Best Picture Oscar.